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Ask Dr. Universe Agriculture

Dr. Universe: How do trees give us air to breathe? – Jamar, 11, Vineland, New Jersey

Our planet is home to all kinds of different plants, and they help make a lot of the oxygen we breathe. To find out how plants make oxygen, I asked my friend Balasaheb Sonawane. Sonawane is a scientist at Washington State University who researches photosynthesis, or the ways plants use energy from the sun and make oxygen. He said that in a way, plants breathe, too. “They don’t have a nose or mouth,” Sonawane said. “They have tiny microscopic organs on their leaves called stomata.” Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do some cheeses stink? – Cody, 11

When you take a whiff of stinky cheese, that smell is coming from one of its very important ingredients: microorganisms. Microorganisms are so small, you’d need a microscope to see them, but sometimes they give off a big stink. To find out more about stinky cheese, I talked to my friend Minto Michael. Michael is a professor of dairy science at Washington State University and told me microorganisms do a few different jobs to help make cheese. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do trees have sap? -Aliyah, 8, Kirkland, WA  

Just as blood moves important stuff around the human body, sugary sap moves important things around a tree. My friend Nadia Valverdi told me all about it. She’s a researcher at Washington State University who studies how apple and cherry trees survive in different environments. When we eat food, like a delicious apple or a handful of cherries, we get important nutrients. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: How do you make cider? -Julianna, 7

We can make cider with juice from apples. There are many different kinds of apples and a few different ways to squeeze out the juice. My friend Bri Valliere told me all about it. She’s a food scientist at Washington State University who knows a lot about cider. The first step is to pick out the apples. Honeycrisp apples will make a sweet cider. Granny Smiths are more acidic and will make a tart cider. “We could make a single batch of one kind, or we could mix different kinds of apples together and see how it turns out,” she said. “No matter what, it’s going to taste good.” Read More ...

Dr. Universe: Why do mushrooms grow in rings? We have a lot of giant ones in our yard right now! - Layne, 8, Spokane 

When you see a ring of mushrooms, it’s likely they are exploring for food under the ground. Giant mushrooms in your backyard are not animals or plants. They are part of another class of living organisms called fungi. But like you and me, they do need food to survive. That’s what I found out from my friend David Wheeler, an assistant professor at Washington State University, who knows a lot about fungi. He said the mushrooms are just one part of fungi. The other part that explores the soil for food actually lives under the soil. Read More ...

What is a tornado made of? - Alice, 6, Ames, Iowa

Dear Alice,

Have you ever felt a warm wind blow by you, followed by a cold gust of air? You can’t see it, but you can sense it on your skin. Invisible to you, winds mix together.

Usually, these winds are harmless. But under the right conditions, they can also be the main ingredients for a tornado.

To learn more, I chatted with Jon Contezac, Craig Oswald, and Joe Zagrodnik, a team of Washington State University scientists who are very curious about the weather.

To make a tornado, they explained, you need two big things: rising air and rotating air.

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Dr. Universe: What is inside a blade of grass and why is it green? Green is my favorite color. We really like reading your articles in our newspaper. – Luke, 5, Ogden, Utah

Dear Luke,

I’ve been wondering the same thing lately.  Every time I go on walks, I notice new splashes of color. Watching bugs in the grass, I pretend they’re crawling through a jungle. Everything is bright and bursting with green.

When I saw your question, I knew Michael Neff would know the answer. Green is his favorite color, too. (In fact, when we talked over video, he wore a green Hawaiian shirt.) Neff researches plants at Washington State University, and he is especially curious about grasses.

If you chopped a piece of grass and looked at it with your eyes alone, you might not see much. But if you looked at it under a microscope, you’d see tiny structures containing even tinier parts.

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Why are carrots orange? - Caden, 11, N.C.

Dear Caden,

When you picture the carrot section at a grocery store in the United States, you probably imagine rows of orange. But carrots can come in a rainbow of other colors: purple, yellow, red, and more.

And the first carrots weren’t orange at all. They were stark white.

That’s what I learned from Tim Waters, a Vegetable Specialist at Washington State University-Extension. He studies how to grow different kinds of vegetables, and helps others learn how to grow them too.

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Why do I like buffalo wings and not broccoli? - Joe, 10, New York City, NY

Dear Joe,

You’re not alone—cats don’t like broccoli much either. As a carnivore, I think a nice, meaty buffalo wing sounds great.

But humans are omnivores, meaning they eat both plants and meat. They’ve developed a taste for all kinds of things growing and living all over the world. So where do individual people’s preferences come from?

To find out, I visited Carolyn Ross, a professor of Food Science at Washington State University. Like you, she is very curious about why people like the foods they like.

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Dr. Universe: Do trees still create oxygen and clean the air after their leaves fall off? – Nova, 8, Palouse, Wash.

Dear Nova,

The trees that lose their leaves in fall, such as chestnuts, oaks, aspens, and maples, are called deciduous trees. Once they lose their leaves, most aren’t able to take in carbon dioxide gas from the air or produce any oxygen.

That’s what I found out from my friend Kevin Zobrist, a professor of forestry at Washington State University.

“Don’t fret, though,” Zobrist said. “For they more than make up for it in the summer.”

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Dr. Universe: How do trees help the air? – Ella, 12

Take a big, deep breath. As you inhale and exhale, you can probably feel the air taking up space in your lungs. The air we breathe is made up of a few different things. It includes gases such as nitrogen, oxygen, and carbon dioxide—just to name a few. Animals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. But in the plant world, it’s the opposite. Trees, plants, and even algae in the ocean, take in carbon dioxide from the air and, using the energy of the sun, transform it into the oxygen we all breathe. Read More ...

Dr. Universe: What is the most smelliest fruit in the world? -Tiana, 9

Our world is full of fruits that have all kinds of delightful smells. Maybe you’ve smelled the sweetness of watermelon, pineapple, peach, papaya, or mango. But you might also be wondering about the most stinky fruit in the world. When I got your question, I asked my friend Lydia Tymon, a plant scientist at Washington State University. The first stinky fruit she thought of was the durian, a large, round fruit that grows mostly in Southeast Asia. The fruit is about a foot wide with a greenish-brown husk that has lots of spikes on the outside. Read More ...

Dear Dr. Universe: Why is the map the way it is? - Pablo, Spokane, Wash.

Dear Pablo,

Next time you eat an orange, try getting the peel off in one piece. Next, try to flatten out your peel. You’ll likely find it a bit tricky to make something round perfectly flat.

The same is true when we map our three-dimensional world onto a flat surface. It doesn’t work very well. That’s what I found out when I went to visit my friend Rick Rupp, a Washington State University researcher.

Rupp is an expert on geographic information systems, which can help us capture and analyze the geography of our planet. He explained that maps can show us all kinds of … » More …

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Why does meat get brown on the grill? – Christina, Seattle, Wash.

Dear Christina,

You know summer is just around the corner when the smell of barbecue is in the air. It’s a great question you ask and it leads us to the Meats Lab at Washington State University. That’s where I met up with my friend and animal scientist, Jan Busboom.

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What is the smallest insect on Earth? -Laurenz, 8, Molino, Philippines 

Dear Laurenz,

When I saw your question, I set out to explore with my bug net and a magnifying glass. I was searching all around for tiny insects when I ran into my friend Laura Lavine, a Washington State University scientist who studies bugs.

She said there are nearly a million different kinds of insects on Earth. The smallest of all the known ones are called fairyflies.

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Hi, Dr. Universe! When I was eating breakfast today, I came up with this question. Why does crispy rice make a popping sound when I pour milk over it? It makes me curious as a cat! -Allison, 11, Pullman, WA

Dear Allison,

My ears perked right up when I got your question. Like you, I’ve heard the sounds crispy rice cereal makes. But the truth is, I wasn’t entirely sure why it happens. There was only one way to find out.

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What is Dr. Universe's favorite experiment? -Garrett, 8th grade, Eastern Washington

Dear Garrett,

You know, your question reminds me of a couple other science questions from curious readers. Evangeline, age 7, wants to know why her hair is black. Sureya, age 8, wants to know why some people have curly hair.

It just so happens that one of my favorite science projects explores our questions about what makes us unique. It has to do with our DNA, or the blueprint for life.

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Why are ripe fruits sweet and why is it so important?  -Alexa, Schenzhen, China

Dear Alexa,

My friend Kate Evans said the answer really depends on whether you want the perspective of a person, a plant, or even a cat. Evans is a plant scientist at Washington State University in Wenatchee, where she investigates fruit in the Apple Capital of the World.

She explained how long ago, wild apples actually grew in forests. Without farmers around to plant them in orchards, trees had to scatter their own seeds to survive.

For some trees, the key to survival is growing sweet, ripe fruit.

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